The pressure cooker of potential

Pakistan is on my mind. My family, relatives and friends in Pakistan are on my mind. The poor are on my mind, since the hangama on the streets will obviously wreak more havoc in their lives than anyone else’s. Average people aren’t able to find petrol/gas to get to work. The fear of demonstrations and police crackdowns will infest the homes of all and sundry.
To borrow from Lawrence’s post about Benazir (he calls her “Possibility”), I always look upon Pakistan as a pressure cooker – but a pressure cooker bubbling with passionate potential. You never know what it’s going to come up with.

It will be unpredictable, frustratingly unpredictable to those who want to plan the futures of millions. You could plunder the treasury for years and make your millions off the starving masses, and suddenly you are stopped in your tracks. The same masses could lift a cricket player on their shoulders, hoping he might be their knight in shining armor. They call for change, for affordable meat and lentils, for decent schools, for values, for security, for jobs. They tolerate even plunderers of the nation’s wealth, hoping for a different tomorrow. Their demands are not complicated. They don’t ask for much. They just want to be able to live lives of tolerable dignity, with food, water and clothing. They want safety in their lives and their honor. They want some protection from invaders, from the exploitation of the wealthy classes and from the ruling classes.

When people ask me what Pakistan is like, I’m stumped. I have to explain that Pakistan is two things. Pakistan is the place where people can buy foreign products – Levi’s jeans, Skechers shoes, Body Shop cosmetics right in the middle of Gulberg – and eat in foreign restaurants. Pakistan is the place where the price of onions and lentils goes up so high that the poor can barely afford to eat. Pakistan is the place where people can spend thousands of rupees a night, amusing themselves in private parties and restaurants. Pakistan is the place where power outages are common, in the middle of the summer. Pakistan is where some people have airconditioners throughout their homes so that they never even experience the weather, and it is the place where some have barely a table fan to cool off.

So which Pakistan do you want to know? Which Pakistan do you want to experience? Depending on how much money you have, you can get your pick. You can have a good time, and you can come back swearing about how nasty, brutish and short the lives of “those people” are. I know Pakistanis who can trip back and forth across the globe, easily living lives of inexpressible comfort in both Pakistan and the US. I know people in Lahore who have doctors in the family yet can just barely manage to make ends meet.

Immigrants like me are shaken and traumatized by the events and the changes in Pakistan. I remember the curfews after Bhutto’s execution. I remember Zia’s violent death in the plane crash. I remember the undisguised corruption of politicians and rulers. I remember the endless unanswered questions, the frustration of average Pakistanis who wanted to live with basic dignity.

Naziraan, our maid, looked over a one rupee coin with the image of Quaid-e-Azam on it and said wistfully, “eh haunda te ennee mehngaai na haundee” (If he was alive, there wouldn’t be so much inflation.) Naziraan wanted a TV: she didn’t want to have to go to neighbours’ homes to watch movies. Naziraan wanted a fan for the home. There was always a glimmer of hope in some hero/ine. Bhutto would fix it. Zia might fix it. Benazir might do some good. Nawaz Sharif might be different. Heck, even Musharraf might surprise us. And so we wait.

While Naziraan waited for a fan, our friends shipped over American SUVs as gifts for family members. Others scraped together money earned in Dubai to pay for their daughters’ weddings. They worked, day after day, in the desert heat, far away from their loved ones, hoping to reconstruct their children’s lives. “So that they might have something better than us.” My father worked all his life and forgot how to relax and enjoy himself, forgot how to take vacations, working both morning and evening and coming home tired and bored, so that he could save enough money for us, so that he could put us in the best private schools. And then I got in a plane and left, taking with me the investment of years.

I watched and wondered if there might be a way for me to go back, to make some contribution, to raise my child there, to live a life of real contact with real people who spoke my language. And my brother said to me, “Why would you come back? Make your life there.” So I stay here, and my heart remains split in two. It lives half in the Pakistan of the 1980s and half in the US of today. I am divided between two spaces and two times.

But this isn’t about me. This is about the lives that are being crushed under the military boot, the lives being moved around by great invisible hands over a chess-board.

The helplessness of average people is palpable when you land there. They watch you as you exit from International Arrivals, hoping you might take their cab, or allow them to carry your suitcases full of unknown goodies. The hunger is unending. The frustration has been building up for years. The pressure cooker has been bubbling for years, and no one lifts the lid. Promises, laws, bans, curfews, policies and empty words. No one listens.

And then foreign viewers of CNN wonder what is wrong with the angry faces burning tires on Mall Road in the Lahore. They watch the contorted faces with uncomprehending fear, hoping those faces stay right where they are, with their funny languages, their strange religion, and their swarthy complexions. Surely they must be calling for something strange and outlandish, like some barbaric laws or death and destruction … – when truly, some peace, security, a bit of food and drink, and some honor and dignity might really work just as well.

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22 Replies to “The pressure cooker of potential”

  1. Koonj – for my own reasons, I spilled tears as I read this. All I can ask is this – for the odd ones like us, who live out here but strive to keep our sense of middle ground alive and burning in our hearts even if we’re not personally having to lament the price of lentils & sugar back home, and who assiduously avoid the throngs of pakistanis who live a life of ‘inexpressible comfort’ between US and PK – for us all, please don’t change. Keep in touch and stay who you are, straight talking and straight seeing, b/c I might go crazy w/out. I hope your family stays safe.

  2. I said on my blog today that I couldn’t really comment on recent events in Pakistan because I knew nothing about the place. I’ve read blogs and newspaper articles and it just all seemed a world away. Now it feels a little closer.

    Thank you.

  3. I hear you..I just came back from that 2 Pakistans !!

    And, I came back for my kid. I had to make a choice for my kid, either life in USA or life in Pakistan. I had no second thought about raising my kid in USA.

    No honey, you stay here for soul you brought in this world !

    (likhne to kitab likh dun per is dil ko chup chap sulagne hi do to behtar hai)

  4. People ask me, because I’m married to a Pakistani, what I think about the assassination of Bhutto…and I ask people who have actually touched Pakistan…and I suppose what we’re asking, really, is what we should think. What do you want us to think? It was only as I type that I realize this, because I do think about it, and the thoughts haven’t really gelled. What I think about most of all, though, is this:

    “Surely they must be calling for something strange and outlandish, like some barbaric laws or death and destruction … – when truly, some peace, security, a bit of food and drink, and some honor and dignity might really work just as well”

    When people ask me what I think, I want to say: just be grateful that the poor people around you aren’t frustrated enough to burn things; be grateful for your relative comfort that keeps you from eternally wishing for a saviour.

    Like so many have said, it wasn’t so much that Bhutto was going to save the day, but she kept a possibility afloat, and now even I wonder what will come to the surface in her absence.

    I actually have been so poor in my life that I understand…understand what? It can’t be put into words, really. But I’m shocked and dismayed at my fellow Americans who now rail that Pakistan is going to nuke us, that Those People are So Volatile. I wish nobody had to be as poor as I was; at the same time I wish everybody could be, just so they’d know…so maybe they could be a little less arrogant…would they?

  5. That was pretty much the whole story, Sister. Truly encompassing the Pakistan at its sixty. If one has to describe the current situation with just one word: its sheer fond of helplessness on our part.

    Though I am the kind of those who are always in love with the big picture, its one of those times when its hard to gather our lives together. Its truly a coalescences of failures that we have cherished for so long. I would say so because I’ll put the blame on society, on myself and the past generations who incessantly taught and tamed us – inadvertently at times – to think about ourselves first; who made us totally oblivious of the moral and social activist within us.

    It was re-affirmed this morning when there was hardly any gas left in my car – barely enough to take me back home from work – and I was praying that a colleague would not ask for my car.

    These are one of those days, when I am ashamed to be a Pakistani and ashamed to be myself. I know that there are countless weak people in the streets who are in need of my strong arms and shoulders, the gas left in my car and the milk and bread that I am gathering in my refrigerator but I love my couch and cribbing tongue.

    Over the years, I have fallen in love with this impuissance.

    wassalam

  6. So I stay here, and my heart remains split in two. It lives half in the Pakistan of the 1980s and half in the US of today. I am divided between two spaces and two times.

    *sigh* So true.

    Surely they must be calling for something strange and outlandish, like some barbaric laws or death and destruction … – when truly, some peace, security, a bit of food and drink, and some honor and dignity might really work just as well.

    Amen, sister!

    You said it all.

    xo,
    Baraka

  7. Thank you for a clearer picture of Pakistan. Which sounds like many other ME countries which have the great divides between the poor and rich. Between people who live in a country but don’t even really know where they are. And others who can cross town to visit an upscale grocery store and just walk the aisles admiring the imported goods but have no delusions that they could afford them. Thanks again.

  8. Shabana apa, you make me so proud. I am so proud. It is women like you who build Pakistan and its reputation. I know you may not live there, but your ideas do. And as long as you speak to us in this voice, your voice, you inspire countless Pakistanis day after day to have hope. We have hope that one day Pakistan will be the place all of us want to return to. Maybe not in this lifetime, but Inshallah, the next.

    Much love,
    S

  9. AA- Koonj,

    Very nicely put. The widespread poverty has indeed resulted in a massive sense of hopelessness that is temporarily suspended every couple of years with a ray of hope (in the form of a new leader) to only have the bubble so ruthlessly burst.

    However, I wonder what is so different/special about Pakistan’s extreme economic disparity that results in its pressure-cooker society?

    What about the countless other impoverished nations? Just look across the border at India, whose poverty is actually more intense – surely the pressure-cooker situation you speak of in Pakistan should be more apparent in India, if the overriding factor were economical. Same goes for the rest of the subcontinent, south/central america, and so on…

    The economical aspect of the problem is but one, dare I say even a minor, dynamic of the bigger picture of Pakistan.

  10. When I read your words describing Pakistan–two Pakistans, I think of so many countries. I think of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Mexico, Guatemala, the Philippines, China…the list could go on and on. The dichotomy of classes is almost too much to bear in this world, and we continue to spill blood so that the rift can keep widening.

    Thank you for this personal, touching post.

  11. Economics is quite a big factor for the pressure cooker effect but even greater is injustice whether being judicial, social or governmental. Caliph Ali( Allah be pleased) put it aptly when he said
    ” Society can be kept together on infidelity but it can never be kept together on injustice”

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